Posted on April 16, 2013 in Countdown
We were all Bostonians last night as we looked on in horror at the senseless attacks on our fellow Americans. Our thoughts and prayers go out to our friends in Boston and to those directly affected by yesterday's horrible tragedy.
This week is an important one for the Arab American community. Today, at the Kahlil Gibran Spirit of Humanity Awards Gala, we honor the extraordinary achievements of individuals and organizations that have contributed to the common good. Tomorrow, leaders in our community will meet with their elected officials to discuss issues and legislative priorities of concern to Arab Americans, including immigration reform, racial profiling and civil liberties, the humanitarian crisis in Syria, Palestine, and most recently, a new legislative initiative to grant visa waivers to Israeli citizens who travel to the US (while allowing Israeli authorities to continue to harass and detain Arab Americans at the Israeli border). In this week’s “Countdown,” we switch from our regular format of bringing you our take on current events to break down some of the key priorities of the Arab American community that should be addressed in Washington and in the states this year. Follow us on Twitter for updates on this week’s events.
Immigration is the rare issue where Congress is actually working towards common sense reforms. A bipartisan group of Senators have drafted a compromise bill that is expected to be released later today or tomorrow that would address the country’s broken immigration system. The bill will likely enhance border security, update the visa system to give preference to highly-skilled immigrants, include an expedited legalization process for Dreamers, crack down on employers who hire undocumented immigrants, and provide a pathway to citizenship for the millions of undocumented immigrants currently living and working in the US. In order to gain citizenship, undocumented immigrants would need to pay fines and back taxes, and the path to citizenship may not even go into effect until the bill’s other components have been satisfied, such as a secure border. As the bill will work its way through the Senate and the House, lawmakers should ensure that due process protections and language prohibiting profiling is in the bill to prevent enforcement measures from discriminating against Arab Americans and other minority groups. Though the bill is imperfect, we hope it is quickly passed in Congress and signed into law by President Obama. View the AAI Immigration Reform Issue Brief.
In the years since the 9/11 attacks, Americans have seen their civil liberties slowly degraded by government policies in the name of national security and counterterrorism. Arab Americans and American Muslims, in particular, have been subjected to extra scrutiny and suspicion purely based on their religion or ethnicity. Perhaps the most egregious example of ethnic and religious profiling has been in New York City, where the NYPD has conducted extensive surveillance in restaurants, shops, and religious institutions frequented by Arab Americans, all without any suspicion of criminality. Congress should act immediately to outlaw the use of profiling, which will both restore the rights of targeted communities and make law enforcement efforts more effective by forming alliances with Arab and Muslim communities. There are a number of actions Congress could take, beginning with the repeal of some provisions of the USA PATRIOT Act, the legislation that began the post-9/11 erosion of civil liberties. Congress should also improve oversight of training programs for the Transportation Security Administration, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and other federal law enforcement agencies to ensure they are not using training materials that advance stereotypes about Arab and Muslim communities. Finally, Congress should re-introduce and pass the End Racial Profiling Act (ERPA), which would define racial profiling and ban its practice by federal law enforcement agencies. The legislation would also provide a mechanism for victims of racial profiling to report complaints against law enforcement. View the AAI Racial Profiling and Civil Liberties Issue Brief.
Like all Americans, Arab Americans have been horrified by the brutality of the Syrian civil war. As the conflict drags into its third year, the war has settled into a bloody proxy battle. Though many American policymakers and legislators have publicly called for American intervention, we worry that the divided state of the opposition means that American arms could end up in the hands of extremists connected to al-Qaeda. Much more urgent than adding more arms to an already militarized conflict is the pressing need to provide humanitarian aid and lay the groundwork for an immediate end to the violence. Fighting has displaced more than a million Syrians from their homes, and the US should focus its efforts on helping Syria’s vulnerable neighbors (Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq) to cope with the influx of refugees and provide basic nutrition and medical care to them. At the same time, the Obama Administration should redouble efforts to find a peaceful solution to the conflict, working with regional allies to stop the fighting before Syria is destroyed completely. Though there is no easy solution to such a difficult problem, a focus on helping the needy and ending the bloodshed would produce significant benefits in the short- and long-term. View the AAI Syria Issue Brief.
Following President Obama’s trip to Israel and the Palestinian Territories in March, AAI has been hoping for a renewed American commitment to forging a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. Without question, substantial difficulties remain. In Israel, ultra-Orthodox settlers that reject any Palestinian state remain an important part of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s coalition, and the broader public feels no urgency to make a peace agreement. Palestinian politics remain divided between Hamas, which controls Gaza, and the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority, which rules the West Bank. Still, the Obama administration should use every lever available to push the two sides towards a deal. It should push Israel, publicly and privately, to stop expansions of settlements so that negotiations can be conducted in good faith. On the Palestinian side, American leaders should work with Arab allies to negotiate a unity agreement that can actually be implemented, allowing the Palestinians to present a unified front during negotiations. As President Obama saw in his first term, Congress will resist any effort to pressure Israel, but as he draws closer to the end of his term, he may be more likely to take on Congressional opposition. John Kerry, the new Secretary of State, has also demonstrated a dedication to the peace process. Continued American attention is vital to the success of the peace process, but President Obama must be willing to pressure both sides to make an equitable deal to end this intractable conflict. View the AAI Palestine Issue Brief
We’ve written before about the attempt in Congress to grant visa-free travel to Israeli citizens, a legislative push that’s been high on AIPAC’s list of priorities this year. Proposed legislation in the House and Senate – both of which have garnered considerable Congressional support – aims to allow Israeli citizens to enter the US without a visa, a privilege currently extended to 37 countries who offer reciprocal visa-free status to US travelers. Despite AIPAC’s best efforts, though, the attempt appears to be hitting a roadblock: Israel refuses to offer the same deal to Americans. Considering their long history of harassment, detention, and deportation of Arab Americans at the Israeli border, this is hardly a surprise. Luckily for them though, the Senate version of the bill, sponsored by the usually-reasonable Barbara Boxer (D-CA), contains a first-of-its kind exemption for Israel, so that it doesn’t have to comply with the same rules that all other Visa Waiver states have to follow. We think this is just too ridiculous to actually pass; are we being too idealistic?